An Interview with Ed Counts by Carolyn Shaffer

Through the now ubiquitous mode of communication, I met and talked with Ed Counts in “e-mail time.” Ed is an animator, an artist and a professor at Western Kentucky University (WKU). He sent me a tape of his six, diverse and entertaining, short animated films, which I watched anxiously. I smiled at some, laughed at others and marveled at them all. Enthusiastically, I shared them with friends, and then, I asked him these questions….

CS: You are a professor of teacher education! How does an education professor end up as an animator? Do you feel you have a sort of double life because of these two usually distinct occupations?

EC: Yes, I am a Professor of Teacher Education in a very large program. We have about 2000 majors and 50 faculty. However, I teach educational media and technology so I am involved in all aspects media design, use, and production. For example, I recently completed a computer interactive multi-media program. This program uses “Authorware” software and a 12″ laser disk to engage undergraduate education students in case-based teacher education methodology. I have noticed that technology is blurring distinctions between disciplines – that is artists and educators share interests and enthusiasm for the creative, expressive, and educational potential of technology. Of course, animation, whether “traditional” or computer based can be a powerful educational tool. Further, my association with the School of Teacher Education here (WKU) provides me with many opportunities to share and celebrate animation with diverse groups of K-12 students – from special camps for children from housing projects to year long projects in high schools and elementary schools. I also teach an animation course once a year for our Department of Communication and Broadcasting. So, in that way, I try to integrate education, art, and technology. In a more practical sense, I should mention that I was an art major as an undergraduate student. As a work-study student worker in a media center, I developed an interest in film, and video production.

CS: You seem to have enjoyed quite a lot of local support. Do you attribute that to your folkloric themes? And…are you from Kentucky?

EC: The “folkloric themes” that you mention are not a fundingstrategy. Nor am I trying to make “old timey” or sentimental works. Instead, I believe that the storytelling tradition of the mountain south, I was born and raised in Bristol Virginia, Tennessee, provides a rich source for animated works. When one considers how the region is too often portrayedas “third world America” or “America’s backyard,” populated by Jed, Ellie, Jethro, Granny, Lil’ Abner, Snuffy Smith,etc., etc., it becomes crucial to me to treat the region with respect and express its beauty and traditions without the usual negative caricatures. That approach has been successful for me. As with most storytelling, the theme of “Joey Learns to Fly” – a paean to childhood’s imagination as one reviewer wrote – is universal as evidenced by its appearing in film festivals from Nashville to Hawaii to Seoul, being distributed by Lucerne Media, Inc. in New Jersey, and airing numerous times on KET and WKYU-TV (Our PBS affiliate station operated by WKU.) Thus, I do not set out to make films that are APPALACHIAN, rather, they are Appalachian. All artists – writers, painters, potters, filmmakers – have to be from somewhere and I believe that where they are from is a part of what they are and what they do.

CS: Although you have screened your films at a number of children’s film festivals, you also have quite a list of other festivals where your work has been presented. I imagine that your work has a broad appeal, beyond the “children’s’ genre.” I would credit that, in large part, to your strong stories and storytelling techniques. Do you have anything you’d like to share about any of the stories or storytelling with us?

EC: My films exist on the extremes of a concrete to abstract continuum. That is, I bounce between the extremes of a structured, storyboarded approach based on storytelling or theatrical tradition and a rhythmic, “abstract” dance of images, music, space, and movement (“Rockers”). I really became interested in interpreting traditional folk stories through animation after asking folklorist Roger Welsch to provide some commentary about the significance of storytelling in our culture for a little educational film I was producing in the early eighties. Soon after that, I made a short little animated film entitled “The Prank.” This work was a direct interpretation from a recording made by Kentucky folklorist Lynwood Montell.

An older Kentuckian described to Montell how two of his friends played a prank on him many years ago by tying a lantern in a sheet and hanging it in a tree on a cold winter night to scare him. So, in that case, the “story” was supposedly true one. My next three films were not based on stories, although one, “Schlafe, Mein Prinzchen” was an animated version of a traditional German lullaby sung by Nashville singer and songwriter and language teacher Hilka Cornelius. “Joey Learns to Fly” was a story told by writer and poet Errol Hess to his children. I asked him to write it down, then produced it with support from KET. The story is told and the music performed by singer and actor and musician Tom Bledsoe who works with Appalshop’s Roadside Theater. The last little film that I have produced was “Top This!” also by Errol Hess. The idea here was to provide a glimpse, through a young boy’s eyes, of the adult game of “oneupsmanship.”

CS: Have you had the opportunity to screen your work for children? If so, please, describe their reactions?

EC: Since my films have been used mostly for broadcast, I have not had many opportunities to see them screened before groups of children. However, “Joey Learns to Fly” was screened on opening night of the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival in 1993. In attendance at Facets theater were a couple of hundred children and their parents. I was pleased with their reaction. In particular, there were a couple of sequences that they found funny that I had not anticipated that they would. I find it difficult to assess reactions to my work. Of course, I sincerely hope it entertains, or in some way moves or touches audiences.
But, after it is finished, there is not much you can do about it one way or another. The work is on its own, so to speak. The most responses that I get are from people around the state who have seen my work on TV.

CS: Tell us about the animation techniques you have employed in your films. Are they primarily “traditional” hand-drawn 2D film animation? Do you feel that stylistically this type of animation is best for children’s films or would you feel comfortable, say, presenting a children’s story in 3D computer animation?

EC: I like to explore various animation techniques. I have created multi-cel level work – “Schlafe, Mein Prinzchen” – drawn lines on bond paper – “Joey Learns to Fly” and drawn 2D art on computer – “Top This”. “Rockers” is a combination of all of the above. About 12 years ago I created a little experimental work on computer -“Pas de Bleu.” For that film, I used an old Apple 2E, a graphics tablet, and some graphics programs written by students. We filmed it on 16mm directly off a monitor. We didn’t know any better! I enjoy watching high quality animation created on computers. The mathematically perfect 3D rendering has a clean, almost antiseptic look to it. Thus, I can understand the potential and appeal of computer animation for many applications. But I also believe that humans have a primitive relationship with images. That is, for me, part of the satisfaction of creating animation is in creating images using a variety of “raw” materials that you can see and touch – and film. There are no “rules.” You just create. When you are using a computer, you can do what the software writer lets you do. The “images” are patterns of magnetic particles arranged on a disk or tape. Of course, with the new software, what you can do is almost unlimited if you are willing to learn how to use it; and I am. I love to make little Quicktime movies with Adobe Premiere for example. I see computer animation not as displacing, but adding. That is, animators, through this relatively new technology have more creative room to wander around in.

As to “hand made 2D” work compared to computer 3D work for children’s films, I have no idea which one may be preferable. Also, I am not comfortable with categorizing some animation as “children’s.” Was the masterpiece of stop motion animation, “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” a children’s film? Independent animators are always looking for opportunities and support. Often, some of that support happens to come from individuals or organizations that want to promote quality work for children.

Although a couple of my films have been in film festivals for children, I hope they can be enjoyed by all ages. For example, I suppose most people have had daydreams about flying. If so, then maybe “Joey Learns to Fly” may remind them of the imagination of their childhood. I believe that animation, as all art, is driven by ideas, not techniques.

CS: Well, about techniques…you sure aren’t limited to just the traditional…nor to story-driven films. In addition to the beautifully-told stories we’ve already mentioned, you have created a couple of pieces that are what I would describe as fun for the eyes! Wonderful, flowing, engaging, imagery coordinated compellingly with music.  How do you account for this variety in your work?

EC: One reason for my variety, I suppose, is that it takes so long to make even a very short film, that I tire of that medium. For example, “Schlafe, Mein Prinzchen” was mult-cel animation – cel paint, dust, fingerprints, etc. So after about 18 months, I want to do something that is spontaneous, non-liner, acoustic, elegantly simple, yet direct
– just the opposite of following a script and storyboard! So that, to me means a film like “Rockers.” I like working with motion, space, “dancing” shapes, rhythm and variety of mediums – felt tipped pens, bond paper, computer graphics.

CS: Please expand on the involvement of your family members in your work that I’ve observed via your film credits. Has this been a rewarding experience? Any other animators in the family as a result of your collaboration?

EC: You don’t have to be crazy to want to make animated films, but it does help. The best way to describe my family’s involvement is patient, supportive, encouraging and tolerant. In fact, my daughter, Katie who is fifteen years old has developed a serious interest in the history, art, and methods of animation. She has made several little films from flipbooks, to zoetropes, to direct on clear 16mm, to index cards filmed on 16mm and edited on video. Plus, we have some computer animation programs at home she likes to experiment with.

CS: Of your six films, which is your favorite?

EC: The one most fun to make was “Rockers” because of the various techniques used and the effort to create a work which consists of “films within films” thus pressuring the viewer to decide where to look on the frame. Probably the most fun for me to watch is “Joey Learns to Fly” because of the simple, yet hopefully, energetic “life” of each of the individual lines, shapes, and colors. Of course, a question like that is akin to asking a parent, which is your favorite child?

CS: Indeed. Hence, we shall let the viewers decide for themselves! And I would recommend seeing them all! How can our readers see your films?

EC: One film, “Joey Learns to Fly” is available from Lucerne Media in Morris Plains, New Jersey (1-800-341-2293). Plus, if they want to preview my six short animated films, I can lend them a VHS copy. Call me at work at 502-745-4613, or send a fax at 502-745-6474. Or send an e-mail to edward.counts@wku.edu.

Films by Ed Counts

“Top This” 1996 2 min 30 sec. Supported by Kentucky Independent Filmmaker Project, Kentucky Educational Television.

“Joey Learns to Fly” 1992 5 min 30 sec. Funds from Kentucky Educational Television Fund for Independent Production; aired on KET, 92-93; aired on WKYU-TV, May, 1993; presented at Appalachian Studies Conference, University of Kentucky, November 1992; Chicago International
Festival of Children’s Films, Third place award, 1993; Sinking Creek Film Celebration, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN; Screened at Seoul International Film Festival for Children and Youth, 1995; Distributed by Lucerne Media, Inc.

“Rockers” 1990 5 min. Funds from the Southeast Media Fellowship Program (1989-91) supported by the Kentucky Arts Council and National Endowment for the Arts; Ann Arbor Film Festival, 1991; Sinking Creek Film and Video Festival, 1991; New York Film Expo, 1991. Distributed
by Picture Start, Inc.

“Schlafe Mein Prinzchen” 1988 3 min 18 sec. Animated German lullaby produced for Hilke Maria Cornelius, Nashville, Tennessee songwriter/producer; The Chicago International Festival of Children’s Films, 1989; Director’s Choice, Sinking Creek Film and Video Festival, 1989; distributed by Picture Start, Chicago; airing on SHOWTIME and The Movie Channel, January 1990
– June 1991.

“Pas De Bleu” 1986 3 min. 16mm computer animated film. Selected as a Director’s Choice film, 1986 Sinking Creek Film Celebration and selected for purchase, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN; segments aired on WSMV-TV, Nashville, TN.

“The Prank” 1985 2 min. 16mm animated film funded by the Kentucky Folklife Foundation; Cash Award Winner, 1985 Sinking Creek Film Celebration, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN; Finalist, 1985 USA Short Film/Video Festival, Dallas, TX; Selected for screening in the
1985 International Animation Festival, Los Angeles, CA; Aired on Kentucky Educational Television as one of the “Best of the 1985 KET Film/Video Festival”; aired on WBKO-TV, Bowling Green, KY, December, 1985; segments aired on WSMV-TV, Nashville, TN; clips used in the video documentary “I Have a Place: the Poetry of Jim Wayne Miller,” distributed by Centre
Films. Screened at Uptown Theatre, Louisville, January 16-19, 1989; screened
at J.B. Speed Museum, Louisville, April, 1989.

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